Learning Zone The Plantagenets


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Learning Zone

Professor Robert Bartlett explores the Plantagenets, England's longest ruling dynasty, in this version of the BBC Two series made especially for schools.


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I'm Professor Robert Bartlett

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and this is the story of the Plantagenets.

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They were England's longest ruling dynasty,

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producing 15 of the nation's most famous - and infamous - kings.

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Their story is one of intrigue, conflict and brutality.

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But also the establishment of England's system of justice.

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And the birth of Parliament.

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They conquered Wales and tried to claim Scotland.

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Their great castles hammered home their power.

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The future of the British Isles

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was shaped by this one extraordinary family.

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The story of England's longest reigning dynasty begins

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here in Anjou, Western France.

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In 1128, an enraged princess arrived here.

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Her name was Matilda and she was the only surviving legitimate

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child of King Henry I of England, and his acknowledged heir.

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Her father had commanded her to marry a 15-year-old boy,

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Geoffrey, the eldest son of the Count of Anjou.

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King Henry hoped the arranged marriage at Le Mans Cathedral

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would produce a male heir, who would ultimately become

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Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, and King of England.

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Things didn't go according to plan.

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Both Geoffrey and Matilda were proud and quarrelsome people,

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and after a tumultuous year, they separated.

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But this was, above all, a political union

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and a reconciliation was soon imposed.

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Matilda rejoined her teenage husband and performed her royal duty -

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giving him three sons in three years.

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This ended any doubts about the succession

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and also laid the foundations of a powerful new dynasty.

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Geoffrey was an energetic, intelligent man

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with golden-red hair.

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He also had a nickname, that comes from the Latin for the broom plant -

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planta genista - Plantagenet.

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No-one knows for certain why Geoffrey was called Plantagenet.

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One theory is that it's because he wore

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a sprig of the plant in his hat.

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But, in any case, for over 300 years

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none of his descendants bore the name.

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Kings don't need surnames.

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But it's proved a useful label for historians to describe that

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long line of monarchs who descended from Matilda

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and the young Geoffrey of Anjou.

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King Henry I had named Matilda his heir.

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But when he died in 1135,

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the English throne was seized by Matilda's cousin, Stephen.

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The Plantagenets fought back.

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Geoffrey led a successful invasion of Normandy,

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which had been part of Henry I's dominions,

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while Matilda crossed the Channel to claim her crown.

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This started almost two decades of civil war.

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Government virtually collapsed and England descended

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into a period of bloody conflict often called simply The Anarchy.

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Geoffrey and Matilda's eldest son, Henry, inherited his parent's claim

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to the English throne and much of Northern France.

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As a young man, he was granted Normandy.

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Later, he inherited Anjou.

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Then by marrying the greatest heiress in Europe,

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Eleanor of Aquitaine,

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he took control of one of the most powerful duchies in France.

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Henry now set his sights on winning the greatest prize of all...

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..the English crown.

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Crossing the Channel with a small army, Henry found England

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devastated by nearly two decades of civil war between

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Stephen and Matilda's supporters.

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His arrival persuaded many barons to join the Plantagenet cause.

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Henry's and Stephen's armies confronted one another

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here at Wallingford Castle.

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A contemporary chronicle,

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the Gesta Stephani, describes what happened next.

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"It was a terrible thing to see so many armed men with drawn swords,

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"ready to kill their relatives and fellow countrymen.

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"And so the chief men on each side shrank in horror from civil war

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"and the destruction of their kingdom."

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Because the two armies refused to fight,

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Stephen and Henry were forced to talk.

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According to the chronicles,

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they met outside the castle, one on either side of the stream.

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Eventually they came to an agreement -

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King Stephen would continue to rule

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but he recognised Henry as his lawful heir.

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The very next year, Stephen was seized by

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"a terrible pain in the gut and a flow of blood."

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The king was dead.

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The negotiations that began here would lead to more than

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three centuries of Plantagenet rule in England.

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On the 19th December 1154,

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Henry II became the first Plantagenet king of England.

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This French-speaking monarch now ruled a vast empire that

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stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees.

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But keeping hold of it would involve intrigue,

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murder and bloody warfare.

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King Richard the Lionheart had survived ten violent years

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on the throne, but his luck ran out in France in the spring of 1199.

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While laying siege to the castle of a rebellious baron in his home

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duchy of Aquitaine, Richard was killed by a crossbow bolt.

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His brother John was now the only surviving son

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of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor, and quickly secured his coronation.

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But John's teenage nephew, Arthur, also had a claim to the crown,

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and was supported by the King of France.

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In 1202, despite his youth, Arthur led an army into Anjou,

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hoping to capture Eleanor.

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John rushed there to free her,

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and it was Arthur who was taken prisoner.

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No-one is certain what happened to Arthur after that,

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but a contemporary chronicler claims that Arthur's own jailor

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told him of the boy's fate.

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According to him, John at first kept his 16-year-old nephew a prisoner.

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But then one night, after dinner, when John was drunk and full of

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the devil, he went to Arthur's cell and killed him with his own hands,

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then tied a huge stone around the corpse

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and tossed it into the River Seine.

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King Philip of France refused to make peace with John

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until Arthur was handed over alive.

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He probably knew this was impossible.

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One by one, Philip conquered John's French domains.

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Soon all that remained of his continental empire was Gascony.

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With France lost,

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John was determined to tighten his grip on England.

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He dispossessed barons who opposed him,

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and exploited his royal powers to accumulate vast personal wealth.

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John also resented Rome's power in his realm,

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and in 1206 he refused to accept the Pope's latest choice of archbishop.

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In retaliation, the Pope deployed his most fearsome weapon -

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the Kingdom of England was placed under an interdict.

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This meant that all church services in England were suspended.

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The churches and cathedrals stood empty.

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No baptisms or marriages could take place in church.

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The dead could not be buried in churchyards.

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No church bells were heard in England.

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And this lasted six years.

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For believers in a so-called Age of Faith,

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this must have been deeply disturbing.

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But it made John rich.

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Because he hit back by confiscating the clergy's lands and possessions.

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The king and the Pope eventually came to terms.

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John would accept the Pope's nominee as archbishop

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but he would keep all the money that he'd squeezed out of the church.

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But John wanted even more money,

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to fund an army to win back the territories he had lost in France.

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His barons were not enthusiastic, so John began to bleed them dry,

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extracting what he needed through draconian taxes

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and exploitation of the royal courts.

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He didn't trust his barons,

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making them hand over family members as hostages.

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When one of his nobles, William de Braose, prepared to give up

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his sons, his wife remembered how the king had treated his own nephew.

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William de Braose was the baron who had served as Arthur's jailor.

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His wife shouted at him, "I will not hand over my boys to your lord,

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"King John, because he foully murdered his nephew Arthur,

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"when he should have kept him in honourable captivity."

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The king's reaction was savage.

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De Braose managed to escape to France,

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but John captured his wife and son and imprisoned them.

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He commanded that their food be stopped.

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After 11 days, they were found starved to death.

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The son's cheeks had been eaten away by his ravenous mother.

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Plantagenet cruelty had sunk to new depths.

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John's invasion of France failed.

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And in May 1215, many English barons renounced their allegiance to him

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and occupied London.

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They demanded a settlement

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liberating the nobility from absolute royal power.

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In desperation, John agreed to accept the demands they made.

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The agreement was issued in a charter sealed at Runnymede.

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Magna Carta - the Great Charter - is one of the most famous

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documents in English history.

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Some of its clauses seem quite mundane,

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like the one fixing the level of death duties,

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but this was a royal power that John had exploited for financial gain.

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Other clauses have a more ringing tone.

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"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned except

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"by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.

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"To no-one will we sell,

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"to no-one deny or delay right and justice."

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All the clauses are based on the idea that there is a right way

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of doing things - enshrined in Magna Carta as the law of the land.

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And the most important thing was that it bound both king and subject.

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Plantagenet dynastic ambition had provoked a new settlement

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between the monarchs and those they ruled.

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Henry III was nine years old

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when he became the fourth Plantagenet king to rule England.

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The French dynasty had dominated England and much of France

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for 60 years.

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But Henry's father, King John, had lost most of

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the family's continental lands to the French king.

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Henry grew up to be a pious ruler, devoted to pilgrimage and prayer.

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But like his ancestors, Henry was determined to expand his empire.

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Henry wasn't a warrior king.

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But he could use the revenues of England to add

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to the Plantagenet dominions.

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The Pope was inviting Henry

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to purchase the rights to the Kingdom of Sicily.

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And he couldn't refuse the chance to add to the family's lands.

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He accepted, on behalf of his younger son, Edmund.

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The only snag was the price tag.

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Henry agreed to pay the Pope three times his annual income

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for the chance to secure Sicily for his son.

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This huge expenditure put his own family's interests

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above those of his powerful barons,

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and a group of them decided the king had to be constrained.

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Things came to a head one April morning in 1258.

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Seven barons in full armour confronted Henry

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here in Westminster Hall. The king was startled.

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"What is this, my lords? Am I your captive?"

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They reassured him that they were not rebels,

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but friends of the Crown.

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Nevertheless, the barons had demands,

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and the king was forced to submit to them.

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This triggered a chain of reforming legislation that transformed

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the way England was governed.

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The reforms would be agreed by a committee of 24 -

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12 chosen by the king, 12 by the barons.

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For the first time in English history,

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the king would share his power with a council.

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These historic reforms are known as the Provisions of Oxford.

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Medieval kings had always claimed to rule by the grace of God, but

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Henry now reluctantly swore an oath to share power with the barons in

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the name of Le Commun de Engleterre - the community of England.

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Provoked by Plantagenet extravagance,

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the Provisions of Oxford mark an important moment

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in the history of England, and of the limitation of royal power.

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For 20 years, the assemblies where the king consulted

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with his bishops and barons had been known by a term

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derived from the French - "parley", to talk.

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This gave us the name of a new institution - Parliament.

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Henry appealed to the Pope to annul the Provisions of Oxford.

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But this provoked his own brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort,

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to raise an army from his base here at Kenilworth Castle.

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He confronted the king's forces outside Lewes in Sussex.

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De Montfort's men were outnumbered.

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But they inflicted a humiliating defeat on Henry,

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and took his son and heir, Prince Edward, prisoner.

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Henry remained king in name only.

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For the next 15 months, England was ruled by Simon de Montfort.

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And he did so through Parliament.

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De Montfort's Parliament of 1265 is often

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regarded as the forerunner of the modern Parliament.

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As always, it included barons and bishops -

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who sit nowadays as the House of Lords.

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But for the first time,

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knights and burgesses were sent from the shires and from the boroughs,

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elected to Parliament by the property owners of England.

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Parliament now had the beginnings of a second house -

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later to be known as the Commons.

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Henry III seemed to be a spent force.

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But his son Edward escaped captivity.

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He raised an army and confronted de Montfort.

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At the battle of Evesham,

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Edward reasserted Plantagenet rule in England.

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De Montfort's supporters were slaughtered,

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and de Montfort himself killed in the battle.

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De Montfort's rule was over. But the English Parliament lived on.

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And future Plantagenet kings would ignore it at their peril.

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Plantagenet kings always looked to expand their territories

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beyond England.

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And Edward I was determined to spread his control

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across the British Isles.

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Wales had troubled the Plantagenet kings for generations.

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Its rugged terrain made it hard to conquer and control.

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And they regarded its inhabitants as little more than barbarians.

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But Edward I was a man who never gave up what he saw as his rights.

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And these included, in his eyes, overlordship of Wales.

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But the Princes of Gwynedd, Llewelyn and his younger brother Dafydd,

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stood in his way.

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Their family had ruled here for centuries.

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Edward's father, Henry III,

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had recognised Llewelyn as Prince of Wales, as long as he paid homage.

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But when Edward took the throne, Llewelyn refused.

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Edward declared Llewelyn a "rebel and disturber of the peace"

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and in 1277 set off westwards from Chester

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at the head of a powerful army of 800 knights,

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crossbowmen from Gascony and 16,000 infantry.

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Edward's army captured Anglesey, the breadbasket of Wales.

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At a stroke, this provided food for his own men

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and cut off supplies to the Welsh.

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Llewelyn had no choice but to surrender and pay homage after all.

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An uneasy truce followed.

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But it was broken when Dafydd ap Gruffydd

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led a new rebellion against English rule.

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For over a year, Edward's army clashed with Welsh defenders.

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But in 1282, disaster struck for the Welsh dynasty.

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Llewelyn was killed in battle.

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Dafydd ap Gruffydd held out here at Dolbadarn Castle

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for a few months more.

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Finally, he was captured and tried by the English.

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Wales was now a Plantagenet dominion.

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Dafydd was executed, and to further stamp his authority,

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Edward built and repaired a chain of castles across Wales.

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These fortresses represent the peak of medieval castle-building.

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It looked at one point as though Scotland would go

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the way of Wales, swallowed up by the English kingdom.

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When King Alexander III of Scotland died in 1286, he left no son.

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The dead king's three-year-old granddaughter,

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Margaret of Norway, was next in line to the throne.

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Edward decided that Margaret should marry his own young son.

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The situation would be resolved by diplomacy and marriage, not by war.

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And Britain would be united under the Plantagenets.

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It remains one of the great "what ifs" of British history.

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No marriage took place.

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Little Margaret died in Orkney, on her way to Scotland.

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And with her died Edward's plan

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for a bloodless Plantagenet take-over of Scotland.

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After the death of Margaret, Edward agreed to tolerate

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a subordinate king in Scotland - John Balliol.

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But as soon as he showed signs of independence...

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..Edward's troops attacked Berwick and slaughtered its inhabitants.

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After defeating a Scottish army at Dunbar, English garrisons

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and officials were installed across Scotland.

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But resistance to English rule grew, led by William Wallace.

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Wallace was a proud and charismatic figure

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who refused to pay homage to Edward.

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To crush Wallace,

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the English army had to cross the River Forth at Stirling.

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At this time, the bridge here was just wide enough

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for the English forces to cross two abreast.

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Once half the army had crossed,

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the Scots swooped down and cut off the bridge.

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SHOUTS, SWORDS CLANK

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The English stranded on the northern bank were surrounded.

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The result was slaughter.

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Around 5,000 English infantrymen died at Stirling Bridge.

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The battle didn't decide the issue,

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but Wallace's defiance shook Edward I.

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The conquest of Scotland remained his obsession.

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The king was riding to confront another Scottish leader,

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Robert Bruce, when he died in 1307.

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Plantagenet determination to subdue Scotland was undiminished.

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But Edward II's defeat by Robert Bruce at Bannockburn,

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seven years later, set the limits to Plantagenet

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ambitions in Britain - they would never conquer the Scots.

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And they provoked a deepening of Scottish national pride,

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and a sense of independence that survives to this day.

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Henry VI was a simple, pious king, and no warrior.

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He lost all the territories in France his father, Henry V,

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had conquered.

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He also suffered from mental illness, which made him vulnerable.

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By 1453, he was incapable of ruling.

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Waiting in the wings was a cousin who thought

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he had a claim to the throne just as good as Henry VI and his young son.

0:23:580:24:03

Richard, Duke of York argued he had a greater right to the crown

0:24:040:24:09

because Henry VI's grandfather, Henry of Lancaster,

0:24:090:24:13

had seized the throne illegally.

0:24:130:24:15

But Henry's wife, Margaret,

0:24:160:24:19

struggled ferociously to maintain her son's right to succeed.

0:24:190:24:23

The Houses of York and Lancaster were on a collision course.

0:24:250:24:29

The nobility was forced to take sides,

0:24:310:24:34

many members of the leading families were killed

0:24:340:24:37

and the power struggle became ever more bitter, bloody and vengeful.

0:24:370:24:41

War raged across England, and after five years

0:24:430:24:47

the Yorkists were gaining the upper hand.

0:24:470:24:51

But then, disaster.

0:24:510:24:53

In 1460, Richard, Duke of York

0:24:560:24:58

himself was killed in battle at Wakefield,

0:24:580:25:01

his head cut off and displayed on the walls of York,

0:25:010:25:04

wearing a paper crown - the only crown he ever wore.

0:25:040:25:08

But the Yorkist torch was taken up by his son, Edward.

0:25:080:25:11

Aged just 18, tall and handsome,

0:25:110:25:14

he would prove to be a formidable warrior.

0:25:140:25:17

After the Battle of Wakefield, he seized control of London,

0:25:170:25:20

and had himself proclaimed king.

0:25:200:25:22

The battle to determine which Plantagenet was the rightful king

0:25:240:25:28

took place here at Towton in Yorkshire.

0:25:280:25:31

In heavy snow,

0:25:340:25:36

this would be the bloodiest battle ever on English soil.

0:25:360:25:39

The fighting lasted all day, the turning point coming as dusk fell.

0:25:410:25:48

Yorkist reinforcements arrived and attacked the Lancastrian flank.

0:25:500:25:55

The Lancastrians were pushed back

0:25:550:25:58

and began to fall down the hill, panic-stricken.

0:25:580:26:01

As they tumbled down the slope, they found that they had to cross

0:26:030:26:07

the river that runs at the foot of the hill, through the woods.

0:26:070:26:10

The dead began to pile up in the river.

0:26:130:26:16

The retreating Lancastrians were forced to clamber over what

0:26:160:26:19

one chronicler called "bridges of bodies".

0:26:190:26:22

28,000 men were reported dead.

0:26:240:26:27

But Edward had won the crown of England.

0:26:290:26:32

When Edward IV died 22 years later,

0:26:380:26:42

his 12-year-old son was proclaimed Edward V.

0:26:420:26:46

But he was too young to take power and the new king's uncle,

0:26:470:26:52

Richard, saw an opportunity to win the crown for himself.

0:26:520:26:58

Richard placed Edward and his younger brother

0:26:580:27:01

in the Tower of London.

0:27:010:27:02

They were never seen again.

0:27:030:27:05

Richard III was crowned king,

0:27:070:27:10

but his suspected murder of the young princes caused outrage.

0:27:100:27:14

Lancastrians and some Yorkists now chose to back Henry Tudor,

0:27:160:27:21

a man with a flimsy claim to the English throne.

0:27:210:27:25

Henry had been living in exile

0:27:260:27:28

and had won the support of the French king.

0:27:280:27:31

He landed in Wales with thousands of French troops

0:27:320:27:36

and marched east, gathering support along the way.

0:27:360:27:39

Richard and Henry's armies clashed here near Bosworth

0:27:410:27:45

in Leicestershire.

0:27:450:27:47

Richard's army was far superior in numbers,

0:27:520:27:55

but the loyalty of his men was in doubt.

0:27:550:27:57

At first, they seemed to be fighting half-heartedly.

0:27:590:28:03

But then Richard saw an opportunity to bring the battle to a swift end.

0:28:030:28:08

Richard caught sight of Henry Tudor surrounded by only a small retinue

0:28:100:28:15

and he charged directly at him with a few loyal knights.

0:28:150:28:18

One of his most powerful nobles, Lord Stanley,

0:28:210:28:24

was watching the battle unfold.

0:28:240:28:26

He commanded up to 5,000 men but his allegiance was in doubt.

0:28:280:28:33

When he saw Richard isolated and vulnerable, he chose to back

0:28:340:28:39

the Tudors and unleashed his troops upon the Plantagenet king.

0:28:390:28:45

The king was abandoned but he chose not to flee.

0:28:460:28:50

The last Plantagenet monarch was cut down by a lethal blow to the head.

0:28:500:28:54

His corpse was stripped naked and paraded along the road to Leicester,

0:28:560:29:02

where Richard was buried in a hastily-dug grave.

0:29:020:29:06

The crown he wore into battle was discovered in the carnage

0:29:060:29:11

at Bosworth, and placed upon the head of the new king - Henry Tudor.

0:29:110:29:15

The Plantagenets, who had dominated England for 331 years,

0:29:170:29:22

fell into oblivion.

0:29:220:29:24

Professor Robert Bartlett explores the Plantagenets, England's longest ruling dynasty, in this version of the BBC Two series made especially for schools. Fifteen of the nation's most famous and infamous kings came from this one family. Their story is one of intrigue, conflict and brutality, but during their 331-year domination of England they shaped the country's politics and culture. Bartlett reveals how Parliament was born, the system of justice was established through Magna Carta and the foundations of the United Kingdom were set down. Ultimately, the family tore itself apart and was destroyed through civil war.